Background In the last decade many studies have definitely shown that human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are the major cause of cervical carcinogenesis and, in the last few years, HPV testing has been proposed as a new and more powerful tool for cervical cancer screening. This issue is now receiving considerable attention in scientific and non scientific press and HPV testing could be considered the most important change in this field since the introduction of cervical cytology. This paper reports our prevalence data of HPV infection collected in the '90s, while a follow up of these patients is ongoing. Methods For this study we used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to search HPV DNA sequences in cervical cell scrapings obtained from 503 asymptomatic women attending regular cervical cancer screening program in the city of Genova, Italy. All patients were also submitted to a self-administered, standardized, questionnaire regarding their life style and sexual activity. On the basis of the presence of HPV DNA sequences women were separated into two groups: "infected" and "non infected" and a statistical analysis of the factors potentially associated with the infection group membership was carried out. Results The infection rate was 15.9% and the most frequent viral type was HPV 16. Conclusion Our HPV positivity rate (15.9%) was consistent to that reported by other studies on European populations.